Chapter One
Babe of the Mortal Coil: You Know the Drill in Hermitville

“One… two… no, no, support zir head and neck, please! … three! Lift!”

Even with six of us, it wasn’t easy transferring Tomma’s limp, lanky body from the floor to the makeshift stretcher (a repurposed surfboard with straps), let alone lifting the stretcher and carrying zir to the designated medical treatment tarp.

“I forget, is ze green or what?” Oyster still wasn’t quite clear on the concept of triage, but after all, he’d only been with us six years. Give him time.

“C.E.R.T. for dummies,” Aarrf muttered and Oyster looked hurt. Aarrf took our community emergency response training drills very seriously and had little patience with anyone who wasn’t as geeky about it as they were.

Joe took pity on Oyster. “No, green is for ‘walking wounded,’” he said. “Red, ze’s red. Immediate. Got that?” Oyster nodded.

“Guys, my bindi is slipping!” Glysandra cried, as she clutched at her share of the surfboard. She would insist on full tantra regalia for our drills. Her rationale? “What if I’m teaching a class when IT happens?” “IT” being an earthquake, lava flow, hurricane, geothermal plant meltdown, mosquito bite, whatevah!

Frank rolled his eyes, and the limp, lanky body on the surfboard snickered.

I leaned over Tomma, “Ssh! You! You’re supposed to be…”

“…Unconscious, with a fractured umbilicus. Yeah, yeah, I know. But I think I can still feel my kundalini!” Tomma wriggled suggestively on the surfboard. Glysandra gave zir a peevish look.

We managed to get Tomma over to the medical treatment area and set zir down without spilling zir onto the red tarp. Glysandra peeled the bindi off her forehead and stuck it onto red plastic armband we tied onto Tomma’s wrist. “There – that’s for your kundalini,” she said, with barely concealed irritation.

Tomma just waved grandly, airily, like the Queen of England in drag. “Much obliged, much obliged! And a heart-felt, aloha-filled ‘mahalo’ to all the little people who have made me what I am today!”

Joe walked over with a glass of filtered water, handed it to Tomma. “Here, hon, I would have dumped this on your wrinkle-free forehead, but this one’s for your so-called ‘umbilicus.’ Drink and shut up! We’re supposed to assess your damage.”

“Too late for that, girlfriend!” Tomma sat up, sipped demurely, and then sank into zir best imitation of a ladylike swoon. I couldn’t help giggling.

It was one of those relentlessly humid Puna mornings. It was only eight, and already, my carefully chosen outfit was soaked with sweat. Glysandra’s “made in India (sweatshops)” pantaloons and glittery tunic were damp—no wonder her bindi had slipped! Joe’s t-shirt was moist in all the right, well-muscled places. Tomma’s bright red ponytails were damp (though artfully arranged on the tarp). Frank and Aarrf, well, their t-shirts never ever looked as good as Joe’s anyway, moist or not. As for Oyster, I seldom noticed what he wore. He had such swoony brown eyes, it was hard to focus on anything else.

“C’mon, Herms, next victim.” Aarrf was relentlessly strict about staying on task. I kidded them once about this, and they simply said, “We’re a working dog.” That shut me up, but good! Aarrf handles security, runs our emergency response training drills, maintains tools, and manages our cache of emergency food and medical supplies.

“Herms.” I’ve never been too thrilled with that group moniker (and I suppose
I’ll tell you why) but it’s what they call us in town, ten miles up the road. Short for “Hermits.” We’re the fortunate denizens of the Hermitville Farm and Arts Collective, forty acres of zoned agricultural land in the moist, humid wilds of Puna, and our farm is locally famous. (Or notorious – take your pick.) And if it wasn’t for Aunty Ginger Croom and her trust fund, my life, all of our lives, would be very, very different. Of course, there’s no paradisiacal ointment without a fly—so that would be her brother, Sidley. And here comes Sidley now, wearing a kilt made of Hawaiian printed khaki. This should tell you everything you need to know about the man.

Run. Run far away. Now.

Sidley looms over Tomma on the tarp and nudges zir with his booted foot. Ze moaned suggestively. “What’s wrong with her?” Oh, that’s one of the things we all love about Sidley. Misgendering. Yep. It’s one of his delightful little passive-aggressive tricks. He’ll get you wrong, then apologize, and say something like “it’s so hard to remember when Tomma looks so lovely.” He says it now. I shoot him a dirty look, and clear my throat, while Tomma stops groaning, opens zir eyes, and looks daggers.

“I can see up your skirt, Sid,” Tomma smiles, still dangerously glinting.

“Don’t call me ‘Sid!” Sidley sputters. “And it’s not a skirt!”

“Exactly,” says Tomma, and closes zir eyes with a grin.

Though busy directing the triage operations over on the yellow tarp, Aarrf overhears and growls. Sidley’s ruddy face momentarily blanches. He’s afraid of dogs for some reason. Something from his childhood, I guess. And though he likes to pose as a hip, slightly kinky dude, he’s never been able to deal with Aarrf’s identity as a human puppy (mongrel mix). Aarrf unnerves him, even without the leather dog mask.

“So, Sidley, are you coming to help us with the drill?” I ask. As if. Sidley never attends our disaster prep meetings. I guess we’re the little people and he’s too grand. His sister, Aunty Ginger, never puts out any trust fund entitlement vibes, but there’s always a “big man with money” undercurrent with Sidley—even when he’s playing at being a counter-culture entrepreneur. Maybe it’s how he compensates for being Ginger’s perennial “little brother.”

“Sorry, Babe, not today. You guys carry on. I’m sure you’ll do great. I’ve got to see our bankers in Hilo.” And Sidley tromps away, to our collective relief.

At least he called me “Babe” today and not “Barney.” Well, to be fair, it’s been a long time since he called me that. But Tomma is gender queer and fluid, and Sidley constantly refers to zir as “her” or “she” even when ze is definitely NOT doing high femme drag. Bastard!

Yes, I do feel strongly about such things.

I was a healthy intersex baby, of the partial androgen insensitivity syndrome (PAIS) variety (Grade 5, if you must know). My chromosomes are XY, so “Barnabus” got stuck on my birth certificate (my dad really wanted a son). But people with my degree of androgen insensitivity don’t respond to androgens or have a masculinizing puberty, and surgery wouldn’t have made me a functioning male, so the doctors eventually allowed my parents to raise me as a girl. This was okay with me. I “felt” more like a girl, whatever that means. So by the time I started preschool, “Brenda” replaced “Barney” and I was awarded female pronouns. I know I was luckier than a lot of intersex kids. No one forced me into living as the wrong gender and I avoided surgical mutilation. However, I could just as easily been an unhappy intersex boy forced to live like a girl. Parents and doctors, they should just let the kids decide!

I never liked the name “Brenda” though. I’m “Babe” to all my friends, as well as casual acquaintances, people on social media, and those who sign up for emails via my website. I’m quite well known, actually, as a neo-burlesque performer and costume designer, with some environmental and intersex activism on the side. A couple of times a year I fly to the continent for burlesque conventions and shows. Lately I’ve been stepping up the activism. It’s important and it also fills my hours as I’m dealing with the aftermath of a particularly sorrowful break-up. (Well, that and bookkeeping. I do the books for the farm.)

Unfortunately, Ginger once told the “Barnabus story” to Sidley and after that, he took to calling me Barney for about six months. He thought it was a terrific joke even though I told him it wasn’t funny and he should stop. Finally I told Ginger I’d slap him with a harrassment lawsuit. That shut him up. Since then, he’s been cordial but distant. Fine with me!

There’s another intersex person here in Hermitville (we’re as common as redheads, you know!) but that person prefers to stay stealth. So I won’t give that person away. And don’t bother trying to guess. You can’t. But you can see now why I don’t like our town nickname, “Herms.” Hermaphrodite is an ugly word when applied to people. And I was called “hermie” plenty when I was a kid.

Also “freak,” “lezzie,” “weirdo.” Da kine.

As we were packing up our disaster gear and figuring out the rotation for our next monthly drill, Rozaline wanders past. “Hey Roz,” Aarrf yells, “Have you seen Aunty yet this morning? She’s late for our post-drill post-mortem.”

Rozaline, the rhythm guitarist who also assists Ginger with personal care, stopped and said, “No, she had a tough time getting settled last night, so I didn’t wake her at seven. I thought I’d let her sleep in and bring a tray later. I’m going to the kitchen now.”

“I’ll come too,” Aarrf said. Technically Aarrf is a “stray” without a human master but they are as loyal and devoted to Aunty Ginger as any owned human puppy could be. And Aarrf has always had a kind of sixth sense when it comes to Ginger’s wellbeing. As for me, I suddenly had a really bad feeling in my gut. I finished folding the red tarp, stuffed it in the plastic crate, and followed Aarrf and Roz.

Behind me, Glysandra yelled, “She was fine at 2 AM. We had a sweet Shakti fire breath and then I tucked her in.”

I run.


First draft version. Copyright A. Marsh 2018.